The New York City queer community lost an irreplaceable friend, artist and activist on January 13 when Bryn Kelly took her own life.
The Brooklyn-based, Appalachia-born, gossip-loving hairdresser was an active community member who loved church and divination, especially the history and practice of tarot card reading. She adored country music, and played autoharp and piano. She was generous with her domestic talents, sharing her baking, cooking and quilting abilities—and a deep sense of pride in her roots—with friends and family.
“She made country queer in the city look gorgeous and proud,” close friend and fellow West Virginian Heather Acs says. “I loved the way Bryn was fiercely committed to her Appalachian roots—making the most beautiful quilts, homemade apple butter, the bluegrass music she played and sang. This was a huge inspiration to me and helped to chip away at the lingering shame I held about region and class, who I am and where I'm from.”
More than 600 people who knew and loved Bryn attended her New York memorial service in February, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Additional ceremonies were held in her Ohio hometown and the Bay Area. At the New York City memorial service, writer Morgan M. Page reflected on the magnetic person who touched so many lives: “To those who were close to her, Bryn was not just the brilliant raconteur and beautiful artist, she was a keen listener and emotional support.”
Bryn was greatly admired for her writing, from Tumblr to literary magazines to the theater. Her serialized writing could be found on Showtime Network’s OurChart.com, in digital literary magazine PrettyQueer.com and pseudonymously as Dearhussy and Partybottom on Tumblr. Her work has been printed in the anthology Trans/Love: Radical Sex, Love and Relationships Beyond the Gender Binary and the journal Time is Not A Line: Reflections on HIV/AIDS Now, commissioned by the New Museum. In 2013, she was selected as a Lambda Literary Fellow. Forthcoming in 2016 is her contribution to the anthology Trans Women Across Genres.
"One of the things about Bryn that makes her loss feel so deep and so massive is how she was a force—not just because she was gorgeous or brilliant or funny as hell, but because she was a powerful witch who often seemed tuned-in and able to share something greater through her writing—a bigger perspective, a sense of spiritual connectedness, even when she wasn't able to access this kind of hopeful magic for herself,” says Bryn's friend Elizabeth Koke.
Among Koke’s many fond memories of Bryn, she says she will treasure the epic nights they spent together out on the town, as well as the nights at home when Bryn would read tarot cards and cook delicious dinners. “I will personally miss Bryn, my friend, who saw me and loved me and challenged me, but the whole world is suffering the loss of Bryn, the activist/artist/truth-teller," says Koke.
A dramatist who studied playwriting at Brooklyn College, Bryn was a co-founder of Theater Transgression, a transgender multimedia performance collective, and a co-creator and cast member of touring roadshow Fully Functional Cabaret. She was a performer in events hosted by Visual AIDS and in Art in the Age of Aquarius at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and presented at many colleges, universities and conferences. Her solo work was exhibited in performance series such as TRIPS, Low Standards, SQUIRTS and Queer Memoir, and she made music with a variety of collaborators in Queer Country Monthly.
As an activist, Bryn contributed her talents to organizations such as SAGE, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Camp Trans and PERSIST.
She was well known among friends for her razor-sharp astuteness. “Burnt by academia, Bryn got the last laugh by often being the smartest in the room,” said writer and memorial organizer Theodore Kerr. “You would see some college student falling over themselves at a party testing out their latest hot take on queer theory and there would be Bryn giving a nuanced explanation of the book Testo Junkie like she wrote it. Her gifted grasp of facts was matched only by her insight into the emotional lives of others.”
Bryn’s loss is a tragedy, and all those who knew her are feeling her absence very deeply. But her loved ones also find comfort in honoring her life, work and spirit, which continue to live on.
“I am heartbroken to think about the writing, performances, bits of gossip, insight, humor, connection, and quiet moments that will be missed,” Heather Acs says. “And I am grateful to have known Bryn Kelly, for every moment we shared. Knowing her is an incredible gift. In this time of pain and suffering, I choose love. I am proud of Bryn Kelly's life. Bryn Kelly is a star.”
In her honor, the Lambda Literary Foundation has established the Bryn Kelly Scholarship for Trans Women/Trans Femme Writers. To learn more or to make a donation, visit lambdaliterary.org.